By Brian Williams, Anchor and managing editor
Our friend and producer Sam Singal thought it was an important enough email to alert me to it over the weekend. When I read it, I understood why he thought it deserving of special mention. In turn, I read the following to my extended family, gathered at our house last night for a Mother's Day cookout. It might be the most extraordinary email, in what it says about our age of communications, I've ever received.
It came from a U.S Army soldier named Tim Terpak, who was responding to my blog post from last week about the Bruce Springsteen concert in Red Bank, New Jersey. I'll let him take it from there:
Sounds like a concert to remember. With my being in Iraq, connectivity is hit or miss, so I didn't realize Bruce was even doing the show. Being a fellow Jersey Shore boy, as we discussed back in April 2003 in the Iraqi desert after your helicopter landed next to the one my Bradleys were securing, I am certainly a big Bruce fan. I would have liked to have been home to see the show, but duty calls again.
I would like to take this moment to thank you for your continued coverage of what's going on over here. When I do get a chance to surf the net or watch the news, it appears Iraq and Afghanistan have fallen off most news reports. It is nice to see someone is still covering the effort of our service members.
Let's take a moment to de-construct this: a young soldier, who is, like me, from the Jersey Shore, reads my blog entry last week during a break while on active duty in Iraq. The last time I saw him, I was with my friend and NBC News Military Analyst Wayne Downing, a retired 4-Star Army General. Wayne and I were riding along as part of an Army mission to deliver bridge components to the Euphrates River, so that the invading forces of the 3rd Infantry could cross the river on their way to Bagdhad. We came under fire by what appeared to be Iraqi farmers with RPG's and AK-47's. The Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire. We were forced down and stayed down -- for the better (or worse) part of 3 days and 2 nights.
Soon after we hit the desert floor, (just as we were wondering how we were going to survive this unplanned stay in the desert south of Najaf, and just as General Downing was going to propose "the distribution of weapons," as he put it) we heard the sound of approaching Bradley Fighting Vehicles -- an armored mechanized platoon under the command of a young West Pointer, Lt. Eric Nye. He ordered his men to dismount and dig in and surround us. They set up a perimeter, they killed two Iraqis who arrived to fire on us again, and they are the only reason we lived to see U.S. soil, or our families, again.
Tim Terpak (who came to have a big admirer in the late General Downing, who was mightily impressed by the indefatigable and resourceful Terpak) was among those few soldiers. He has served more tours since then. It is clear he still has his priorities in order while serving this country: he's expressing obvious concern that a Springsteen development has somehow taken place without his knowledge. It's an awful feeling. It was far from a routine email -- it speaks to our shrinking earth, our volunteer force, love of country and the great feeling of loving a great band. Wayne would have loved this story.
Now to a spot thousands of miles from the Iraqi desert, but having to do with a harsh stretch of land just the same. The first story I ever did for television was about abandoned lead and zinc mines in the region surrounding the far corner of Northeast Oklahoma. As part of my travels on that very first day on the job at a Kansas television station, I stopped at several locations to shoot videotape pictures of the mine openings and the "chat piles" -- the discarded rock -- mountains of it, that contain lead and zinc remnants (and other chemical compounds) that give off a relentless toxic dust. Chat piles are a hazard and an eyesore across a huge swath of the old mining region in the middle of the country.
Among the towns I stopped in that day: Picher, Oklahoma. Picher was then a down-on-its-luck town of a few thousand people -- these days, a few hundred. Mickey Mantle played ball there as a kid -- he was from a neighboring town. The mining business had long ago shut down, and left its sorry remnants behind. The mines that had provided the lead for so many of the bullets fired from American weapons in World War II and Vietnam -- quickly became a health hazard. I often felt, talking to folks in Picher, a bit of sadness. It was well known that children in Picher had lead levels in their blood way above the national average. Raising a family in Picher often meant having no other financial options. Many of today's residents of Picher are the sons and daughters of the original "Okies" -- the brave Americans who were part of the westward movement to settle the Plains. They worked their patch of dirt, they somehow scratched out a living. They paid their taxes, sent their children to school, and at the end of the week enjoyed a church supper, a ball game, and services on Sunday. A lot of good people have stayed in Picher, trying to petition their government to clean up the problem, trying to make a go of it as a town.
Then came this weekend's tornadoes, which wiped the earth clean of structures everywhere they swung. There was a familiar sight in the background of one of the interviews conducted with a storm survivor this weekend. While the woman spoke, standing in front of what appeared to be her former front porch, off in the distance was the unmistakable sight of a chat pile -- a man-made mountain of rock.
It survived the storm. So did the woman being interviewed. Sadly, because of what happened there this weekend, living in Picher, Oklahoma got tougher. If Picher is to make it, and recover from what man and nature have done to that small, proud, Oklahoma town, it's going to take the work of a lot of good people.